CRIMEHow Serial Killers Captured Popular Culture

By Monica Jimenez

Published 3 November 2022

Celebrity, monster, antihero—the serial murderer has many faces in our movies, books, and shows, and we love them all.

Types of Serial Killers
Serial murderers aren’t all the same. The FBI distinguishes between “disorganized” serial killers, who strike without planning or logic and often don’t cover their tracks, and “organized” killers, who do plan and cover their tracks, often cleverly and meticulously.

Beyond that, Tufts lecturer Brett Nava-Coulter teaches his students about four basic types: 

·  Missionary serial murderers, such as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, kill to accomplish a social or political goal.

·  Visionary killers suffer from psychosis, or a break with reality, and often believe an external power is making them kill people. They are often “disorganized” in the FBI classification.

·  Hedonistic killers end lives mainly for the pleasure of the experience, whether that’s lust, thrill, or comfort.

·  Power/control-oriented killers–well, you can probably guess.

Despite the popular image of the white male killer, many serial murderers in the U.S. are in fact not white, Nava-Coulter said. They just don’t make headlines as often because serial killers usually target people of their own race and non-white victims generally attract less media interest than white ones.

Serial killers are overwhelmingly male, though. Female serial killers, or “black widows,” who often kill multiple spouses to collect insurance money or successive children to remove competition for attention, make up only a small percentage of the group, according to Schaffhausen. (Killing one’s spouse and children at the same time is technically not serial murder.)

And it’s actually the least recognized serial murderers who kill in the greatest numbers, Schaffhausen said: medical killers or “angels of death,” trained health care professionals who deliberately end their patients’ lives for pleasure, power, or a misguided desire to end pain.

Go to a costume party this Halloween and you might see the black plastic butcher’s apron donned by the titular killer of Showtime’s Dexter or the stalker’s baseball cap and black backpack that Joe Goldberg wears while trailing the objects of his affection (and murderous jealousy) in Netflix’s You. Both shows are hits: Dexter was recently revived for a ninth season and the fourth season of You premieres in a few months.

You might also see costumes inspired by real killers whose lives are popular on screen. There’s the brown leather jacket Zac Efron wore in Extremely Wicked Shockingly Evil and Vile to portray actual serial killer Ted Bundy (a role later played by James Marsters and Chad Michael Murray), or the signature aviator glasses of real-life murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, sales of which have surged since this fall’s Dahmer–Monster became Netflix’s second most-watched show ever.